Pittsburgh synagogue attacker who killed 11 gets death sentence

Mourners visit the memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue on 31 October 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Eleven people were killed in a mass shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Jeff Swensen/Getty Images/AFP

  • Robert Bowers, responsible for the 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue shooting that killed 11, has been sentenced to death by a 12-member federal jury.
  • The jury found Bowers guilty of dozens of federal hate crimes motivated by anti-Semitic beliefs and lack of remorse for his actions.
  • This marks the first successful federal death penalty prosecution since President Biden took office, but execution remains uncertain due to the current moratorium on federal executions.

A man who opened fire on a synagogue in the United States in 2018, killing 11 people in the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in the country’s history, has been sentenced to death, multiple US media outlets reported.

A 12-member federal jury on Wednesday unanimously ruled that Robert Bowers should be executed for the mass shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018, the media outlets said.

The jury found Bowers guilty of dozens of federal hate crimes in June after an emotional trial at the US District Court in Pittsburgh in western Pennsylvania. The 50-year-old was convicted of 63 counts, including 11 counts of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death.

The jurors found that Bowers’ attack was motivated by his hatred of Jewish people and that he chose Tree of Life because its location in one the largest and most historic Jewish communities in the US meant he could “maximise the devastation, amplify the harm of his crimes, and instil fear”.

They also found that Bowers – who had an AR-15 semiautomatic assault rifle and three Glock handguns during the attack and had expressed strong anti-Semitic views online beforehand – lacked remorse.

The massacre compounded fears of a resurgence of far-right groups and neo-Nazis across the United States and racism-fuelled attacks.

The family of 97-year-old Rose Mallinger, who was killed in the attack, and her daughter, Andrea Wedner, who was shot and wounded, thanked the jurors and said, “A measure of justice has been served.”

“Returning a sentence of death is not a decision that comes easy, but we must hold accountable those who wish to commit such terrible acts of antisemitism, hate, and violence,” the family said in a written statement.

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who hid in a bathroom during the attack, also thanked the jury, saying, “It is my hope that we can begin to heal and move forward”.

The jury’s decision on Wednesday marks the first time since US President Joe Biden took office in January 2020 that federal prosecutors have successfully sought and won the death penalty.

However, it is not clear when, if ever, Bowers will be executed. The US Department of Justice has instated a moratorium on federal executions. At the same time, it reviews the death penalty, which Biden pledged to abolish when he was running for the Presidency.

In the sentencing phase, prosecutors argued that Bowers had the necessary intent and premeditation to qualify for the death penalty. They presented witnesses and evidence to show he carefully planned the attack and deliberately targeted vulnerable elderly worshippers.

Defence lawyers argued that Bowers has a major mental illness, including schizophrenia, and therefore lacked the necessary level of intent.

US District Judge Robert J Colville will hold a formal sentencing hearing for Bowers on Thursday, The New York Times reported, citing court officials.

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